“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
— Introduction to the TV series Star Trek, 1966-1969
As our small band of bicyclists heads south along New Mexico 187 from Caballo toward Hatch and Las Cruces, a view to the east would reveal not much more than the photo below: a lot of barren desert and the Caballo Mountains in the distance.
Unless it’s a launch day at Spaceport America.
Then, we might see a streak of light and a contrail of spent fuel as a rocket arcs toward the edge of space.
Cape Canaveral, Houston, Pasadena and Vandenberg Air Force Base have long been associated with space exploration.
The lunar landing missions and space shuttles, of course, were launched from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center and controlled from the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena handles interplanetary missions. And Vandenberg, in Santa Barbara County, California, launches military and commercial satellites and tests ICBMs.
But now New Mexico is getting into space travel in a big way with construction of Spaceport America, the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport. After a groundbreaking ceremony in June, the spaceport’s terminals, hangars and a 10,000-foot runway are taking shape at a 27-square-mile site near the town of Upham, just west of the White Sands Missile Range and about 45 miles north of Las Cruces.
The spaceport is to be the headquarters of Virgin Galactic, a company founded by billionaire British entrepreneur Richard Branson. Virgin Galactic plans to take paying passengers — at a price of about $200,000 per passeger — to the edge of space by late 2010.
A specially designed high-flying mothership, WhiteKnightTwo, would take off from the long runway and climb to 50,000 feet.
Branson has signed a 20-year lease to use the facility. He plans eventually to launch as many as three flights a day for two-hour rides.
An area to launch rockets vertically already is in operation at Spaceport America. UP Aerospace Inc., based in Denver, has been launching educational and commercial payloads since Sept. 25, 2006.
On April 28, 2007, some of the cremated remains of Gordon Cooper, one of the original seven astronauts; actor James Doohan, who played Chief Engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott of the starship Enterprise in the 1960s TV series Star Trek; and those of 206 other people were rocketed into suborbital space by UP Aerospace from Spaceport America.
The capsule carrying the ashes fell back toward Earth as planned, but it was lost for nearly three weeks in the mountainous landscape. The payload capsule was found on May 18, 2007, and the ashes were returned to the families.
Cooper’s widow, Suzan, told the Web site Space.com: “Supposedly, we are all made of stardust. So then it is only natural to one day return to the stars once our lives have ended on this Earth.”
Check out the videos on Spaceport America and the rollout of the WhiteKnightTwo.